Candidates aiming to be the next Fredericton South MLA made their pitch to a large student crowd in the University of New Brunswick Student Union Building Thursday night.
The debate, presented by St. Thomas University and UNB student unions and the New Brunswick Student Alliance, showcased all 5 candidates running in the student-heavy riding.
Incumbent Green MLA David Coon opened by saying he has turned into a “relentless champion” for mental health services and is committed to reducing student debt. Coon said he will also work to address inequitable provincial funding for St. Thomas University.
People’s Alliance candidate Bonnie Mae Clark spent her opening statement speaking to her background growing up in the city and working in healthcare. Clark said she started at UNB as a mature student and single mother, and went on to receive a doctorate in education.
“I think you students have a great future in front of you, and I’d like to learn more about what your plans are,” she said.
Scott Smith, the Progressive Conservative candidate, said he offers elected office experience from serving on regional service commissions and will commit to controlling government spending. Smith said the province is overtaxing its citizens.
“We can talk about ideas and proposals, but what I’d like to suggest today is that you have the power in Fredericton South to actually change this government and introduce a new one that’s going to fight for you,” he said.
NDP candidate Chris Durrant told students in his opening statement that he is best suited to represent them as a young, 31-year-old with student debt. He said the party’s inclusion of transgender and Indigenous candidates results in a more diverse and enhanced approach to policy.
“Having people on board changes what the priorities are,” Durrant said.
Liberal candidate Susan Holt said the world’s politics have not adapted to widespread change. She said she is running to bring her vision of a “modern government” to reality.
“I have an idea for what better government looks like,” Holt said. “It’s more open, it involves open data, it involves collaboration, where you bring the people who care about the policy into the process.”
Plans to keep young New Brunswickers in the province
St. Thomas University political scientist Tom Bateman asked candidates how they would encourage students to remain in New Brunswick, considering our provincial debt now exceeds $18 000 per person.
Holt said she would increase funding for the Liberal government’s youth employment program to create more employment opportunities for university and college graduates. The Liberal party has also pledged, if re-elected, to eliminate student loan interest for students living in New Brunswick.
Durrant said the government needs to highlight the success of students and entrepreneurs to promote staying in the province, and noted that the NDP platform includes raising the corporate tax to a level similar to Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. He explained that new revenues could be used to fund support for small business.
Smith said keeping young people in the province begins with eliminating the provincial debt and reducing taxes to make New Brunswick an affordable place to live. He also said the Progressive Conservatives support eliminating the “double tax”: property owners are currently taxed by both municipal and provincial governments on all non-owner occupied residential units.
Coon said he would bring back the tuition rebate program, which incentivized students to stay in the province after graduation. He also said the Green Party platform would create jobs through a shift to a “green economy” and quality of life would increase with food affordability.
Eliminating barriers to higher education
New Brunswick Student Alliance Chair Brianna Workman asked candidates how they would ensure the students of Fredericton South are supported, given the financial and non-financial barriers they face.
Smith said the Progressive Conservatives would bring more psychologists into the provincial healthcare system “from day one,” and bring back the tuition rebate program.
Durrant said the NDP would do many small things to make students more comfortable and safe, such as increasing the availability of gender-neutral washrooms. The party would also eliminate interest on provincial student loans to address debt, back Indigenization efforts and redesign the sex education curriculum to support students’ transition to university.
The Green Party would help students financially by raising the minimum wage and reforming the province’s tenancy regulations, Coon said. The proposed change would require all costs, such as heating and plumbing, to be published up front, so renters know the total cost before signing a lease. The provincial government should also launch programs to “stamp out stigma” of mental health, Coon said.
Clark said a People’s Alliance government would back expanding the provincial bursary program and hiring more mental health counselors on campus. She said professors should be taught about different agencies and resources to better refer students.
Holt said the Liberal party will continue to work closely with the New Brunswick Student Alliance and student unions to reduce barriers to higher education upfront, such as the free tuition bursary program.
“The government should listen, collaborate, respond to and prioritize what campuses and student groups are saying,” she said.